BTS: Obama's Stretch Run in Ohio (Part 1 of 2)

Monday, May 6, 2013
[NOTE: this is the first of a two-part installment of my "behind the scenes" observations related to the 2012 presidential campaign.  With the nearly 6-month delay between the events and this posting, I might overlook some of the trivial things I endured but I wanted to finally jot down the main items as well as my reflections on the entire reporting experience.] 

Seasongood Pavillion in Cincinnati's Eden Park being prepared the evening before President Obama's "grassroots event" last September

If you go back to my last "BTS" feature (related to my coverage of Vice President Joe Biden's September 12th "grassroots rally" at Wright State University), you would see that I (finally!) established contact with the Obama campaign's press office and was issued official press credentials to cover that rally as a full-fledged member of the media.  Since they had me on their email notification roster, I was receiving several updates per day on the current, recently completed, and upcoming events scheduled for the president and his running mate.  With Ohio as the biggest "swing state" prize in the November general election, it was only a matter of time before Obama would make his own appearance in the local area, and I received the following advisory just a few short days later:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, September 14, 2012
CONTACT: Obama for America Press (312) 985-1198


CHICAGO—President Obama will travel to Ohio for campaign events next week.  On Monday, September 17, 2012, President Obama will deliver remarks at grassroots events in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio.

In Ohio, President Obama will lay out what’s at stake for middle-class families and highlight the clear choice in this election between moving our country forward to an economy built from the middle out or returning to the same top-down economics that failed middle-class families in the past.  The President will discuss his plan to restore middle-class security by paying down our debt in a balanced way that ensures everyone pays their fair share and still invests in the things we need to create jobs and grow our economy over the long term, like education, energy, innovation, and infrastructure.  

Members of the media interested in covering the President’s grassroots events on Monday in Ohio must RSVP for EACH STOP by Saturday, September 15, 2012 by 12:00PM EDT / 11:00AM CDT.  No late submissions will be considered.

Needless to say, I was going to take them up on this opportunity and immediately RSVP'd for the Cincinnati event.  That decision was based upon how it would impact my own work schedule (the Cincinnati event was going to be a lunchtime affair while the Columbus appearance would be held later in the afternoon).  Remembering my travel issues surrounding the March Santorum rally, I also decided to stay overnight in "The Queen City" to remove any problems with morning rush hour traffic and additional transportation-related security precautions enacted due to a presidential visit.  I next used Google Maps to find the event's exact location and expanded my view outward to determine if (and where) the nearest hotel might be to Eden Park.  I lucked out by getting a reservation at the Marriott Spring Hill Suites, located within an easy 5-to-10 minute walk from the venue.

Since this was my first Obama-related request, the lack of an immediate approval started to weigh on me and I sent my media POC an email to follow up (I also was worried about choosing "reporter" instead of "photographer" on the online application and if it would limit my accesses within the media areas).  She gave me an email address to submit that change and it was late in the afternoon on September 15th (a Saturday) when I received a confirmation email:

Media Credential Confirmation: Grassroots Event with President Obama in Cincinnati, OH

If you are receiving this email, you are confirmed to cover the grassroots event with President Obama on Monday, September 17, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Grassroots Event with President Obama in Cincinnati, OH
Estimated Event Time:         12:25 PM EDT

Where:           Eden Park’s Seasongood Pavilion   
                        1294 Art Museum Drive,
                        Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
SUCCESS!!!  Cincinnati would be the place for my first official presidential coverage!!!  While I was deeply disappointed with what happened in Columbus earlier in the year, it was now going to pay dividends.

The exterior of the Marriott Spring Hill Suites--my "base camp" for the Obama "grassroots event"

Late on the afternoon of the 16th, I packed up my car and made the approximately hour-long drive down to Cincinnati.  For late September, the weather was great (mid-to-upper 70s and sunny) and I arrived at the hotel a little after 6PM.  After checking in and dropping my stuff off in the room, I decided to take a walk over to the site of the event.  My phone's GPS program told me it would be approximately a half-mile stroll but it didn't bother to tell me of the steepness of the route.  After about 10 minutes, I arrived at Seasongood Pavilion to take a look around at the setting for the following day's festivities.

 My anticipated walking route to the "grassroots event" venue

I could see the last-minute preparations being completed by the campaign volunteers in the main gathering place as well as in the areas immediately surrounding the pavilion.  Moving trucks were still delivering equipment and other items to help the staff accommodate the thousands anticipated for the noontime rally.  This was my first visit to this location and the scenery and logistics gave off a very intimate vibe for one so close to a major metropolitan area.  I walked around the site to help me visualize what I might face the next day and took several pictures to help in my strategizing.  After about 20 minutes, I was satisfied with what I had observed and headed back to the hotel for some "down time" (a Lions-49ers matchup on Sunday Night Football and a delivered LaRosa's calzone) and an "early" (before midnight) bedtime in preparation for the next morning.
 Signage indicating I was in the right place (notice the barriers and fencing already in place)
A campaign sign was erected on a hillside primarily for photo-ops the following day

A wide view of the Seasongood Pavilion in its empty state (the area immediately in front of me was for accredited media)

Since I had a 10:15AM show time (that was when the Secret Service were scheduled to complete their security sweeps), I didn't have to get up terribly early but I did make it downstairs before the hotel's complimentary breakfast service ended.  To take up some more time before checking out, I watched a little bit of MSNBC's The Daily Rundown and I "tweeted" in the daily trivia contest (although I got it wrong).  After taking care of my bill and packing up my car, I cheerfully headed out on my anticipated short jaunt just across the street to the venue; however, that is now it actually ended up.

My actual route to the Seasongood Pavilion for the Obama event

Because the leader of the free world would be speaking at that location within the next 2-3 hours, the area around Eden Park was effectively cut off from the outside world.  That short walk up along the path leading to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the adjacent pavilion would not be permitted by the security folks so I had to join others who also did not anticipate this change for a much longer trip along Gilbert Avenue to Elsinore Avenue and a winding trek through the city's Mount Adams neighborhood to the pavilion. 

 The view of the Cincinnati skyline looking down Gilbert Avenue on my way to the Obama rally

The WCPO-TV studios are located on Gilbert Avenue at the edge of Eden Park

 The Elsinore Arch, located along Gilbert Avenue, once served as the main entryway to Eden Park

An entrepreneur staking out potential customers along the walk to the "grassroots event"

On the map above, it appears that this new route is about twice as distant as my originally planned one was but that day's heat and humidity made it feel a whole lot longer.  Carrying my main equipment bag plus one for my monopod and tripod, I was relieved when I saw the first media-related sign along the route.  I followed the arrows and made my way over to a table set up for accreditation checks and it was there that I picked up my first official White House press pool badge (at least one that I could keep).  After passing through a security checkpoint, I was then allowed to make my way down to the designated media area and await the arrival of the president.

I knew I was getting close to my destination when I saw these signs near the event entrance

I got to keep this one!!!

With nearly 90 minutes to kill, I wandered around the media areas to snap some photos and talk with other media personnel who were doing this as their primary job.  I met one videographer who looked to be around my age (or perhaps a little older) who was intrigued with my pursuit of a possible journalism career and he was impressed with my web site (I conveniently had it up in my phone's browser).  A good part of this down time was spent in an informal discussion with MSNBC on-air analyst and political journalist Perry Bacon, Jr.  I was surprised by how approachable and cordial he was (I saw him sitting at a table reviewing his emails/texts and just walked up and started a conversation) and we stuck an instant rapport about the then-current status of the presidential campaign and its coverage by the various media outlets.  As the time grew closer for the president's arrival, you could see a visible ratcheting up of security with ground-based and airborne surveillance elements making their presence felt.  The telling sign of Obama's imminent arrival was the appearance of the traveling press pool members (they had their own section inside the media area and had box lunches awaiting them at their first of two Ohio stops on that day).

A reporter delivering a live video report prior to the start of the "grassroots event"

Photographers and videographers stake out their spots on the press riser prior to the start of the "grassroots event"

The cordoned-off area for the traveling press pool members at the "grassroots event"

The event's pre-program started around 11:30 with the perfunctory Pledge of Allegiance, invocation and National Anthem.  Two speakers, one an Obama for America campaign volunteer from Ohio and the other a local union official who was also a veteran and college student, preceded the president and he took the stage very close to the scheduled 12:25PM time.  I had a pretty good spot to capture the moment when he took the stage and I was able to improve upon it when I took my turn up on the press riser.  When I saw several photographers being escorted to an area directly in front of him, I stood by the agent granting access to wait for my turn but I was denied (that privilege was reserved for national press only--the "L" on my pass indicated that I was a "local").  I experimented with the high-speed continuous shooting (High-speed Burst HQ) mode and HD video footage to ensure that I would come away with a lot of images to choose from for my initial posting besides the single shots I tend to favor (my overall tally for the day was a little over 500 photographs and "screen grabs").  I was caught near the rear of the media area when he concluded his remarks and had to make a mad dash back to the press riser to cover the "glad-handing" that follows nearly every American political event these days.  The Secret Service escorted him along the entire "rope line" and among the "backdrop" attendees (the people who were strategically seated behind Obama on stage for his speech) before he exited behind a curtain.  Although my zoom lens does a pretty good job of hiding the fact that I could not get closer than 20 feet to the president, I really wish I could've gotten the same level of access as I did for Vice President Biden's rally at Wright State University the previous week.

NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker taking notes on her iPad during the president's remarks

A view of the president from behind the press riser at the "grassroots event"

The view a little farther back that included one of the Klieg lights needed--even on a somewhat overcast day--to improve the quality of the coverage for the television viewers

 Two "national" accredited photographers maneuver in front of the podium during the "grassroots event"

Local and regional media outlets were out in full force for the president's visit

As the crowd began to disperse, I took one last look around and reflected upon my first (accredited) presidential reporting assignment.  While the event did enjoy national coverage, local and regional media outlets had also provided wall-to-wall coverage of this "grassroots event" and the television crews were packing up their gear for the ride back to do post-production and reporting the day's events on the evening's newscasts.  I took a different route back to my car at the hotel (the stairway down to the Elsinore Arch was now open and that cut out a lot of steps for that return jaunt).  When I got back, I stowed my camera and other equipment in the back seat and made a decision that had both good and bad consequences concerning my trip back to Dayton.  Since I was very close to Interstate 71, I had an easy egress route available to me; however, instead of going north to I-275 (or sticking with northbound I-71 until meeting up with US Route 35 closer to Dayton and making the short swing over to my office), I decided to go south and cut through central Cincinnati to take I-75 instead.  Even though the president's motorcade had a good head start on me and the other drivers going that way, local law enforcement had all of the highway routes closed in and around the downtown area and they were directing traffic onto the city's street grid.

 My view of the near-standstill southbound traffic on Interstate 71 going into Cincinnati after the "grassroots event"

A trip that normally takes less than a minute or two extended to about 10 minutes (slower speed plus lunchtime pedestrians and signal lights being factored in) but I did make it to that route and almost had the entire road to myself (although I did feel sorry for the southbound traffic that was backed up nearly five miles due to the security precautions).  Once outside I-275, I began to think about getting some lunch and I made my way to a Wendy's in nearby Mason.  I ordered my food and it was there that I was treated to watching Air Force One's departure from the Covington, Kentucky airport.  Since his next stop was Columbus, which is a straight shot northeast from the greater Cincinnati area, I started to look to the east because, depending upon the exact flight route taken, I might get a glimpse of the plane as it flew by.  I waited several minutes but the VC-25 aircraft was nowhere to be seen so I got back behind the wheel and completed the near hour-long drive back to Dayton (and directly to my workcenter to perform my evening employment duties).

Coverage of the "grassroots event" in the following day's Cincinnati Enquirer

It really didn't sink in until I read the headlines the next day in my local paper and several others from around the state--I was granted access to be in very close proximity to the most powerful person on the planet for the sole purpose of documenting that encounter for those who could not attend it themselves.  While the rally in Columbus was much bigger and more significant in terms of the overall campaign, this one in a Cincinnati park will be the one that I will fondly remember.  And, as I found out the following month, that event would not be my last opportunity to see the president "on the trail".

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